Max Harris was what they commonly call "a self-made man". He reflected almost nothing of his family background. It was not an issue of rejecting class, but of modelling himself on every value which was antithetical to those of his father. Vic Harris, an outgoing travelling salesman in groceries who rose to become managing director of a major produce company, privately was an intolerant and bombastic man. Max was repulsed by his father's strident bullying and lack of curiosity about his fellow man. Max's mother, the gloriously named Claris Harris, was an intelligent woman and a voracious reader who excelled at bridge and croquet in lieu of any other possibilities in life.
Max was her only child - and a genius prodigy who learned to read as a toddler. Accompanying his mother to the local library in Mount Gambier in the South East of South Australia, he consumed all the children's books and then, still a small lad, he systematically read every book in the library from A-Z. And for the rest of his life, he retained the contents of those books - from anthropology and geology to plumbing and Sophocles.
He was writing poetry from tender years and having works published in the Sunday Mail newspaper's Possum Pages. It was only a talent for football which gave the young Harris any modicum of acceptance among the country schoolboys. Mainly he recalled bullying.
His escape from country town life was to sit for a scholarship to a city college. He did this behind his father's back - and when he won the scholarship, there was no encouragement from his father. No word at all. Instead, Vic turned and left the house - ironically, going off brag about his clever son over a few beers with his mates.
Under the Vansittart scholarship, Max moved to Adelaide as a boarder at St Peter's College where, again, his prowess on the football field saved him from complete punishment as an egghead. His English teachers, most particularly one J.S. Padman, relished his brilliance and gave profound encouragement, ever remembered by Harris. Harris devoured his education with ease, won 21 prizes at St Peters along with the Tennyson Medal as the State's top English scholar. He became House Captain and continued to write while working his way through larger libraries. In his final year, however, he abandoned school in the dead of night and joined the afternoon newspaper, The News, as a copyboy. There he was soon writing articles and going out on stories - even, famously, interviewing H.G. Wells when he visited Adelaide. Harris was a highly political teenager and one of the marks he left at the newspaper was an iniative to create a trade union for copyboys.
Beyond the paper, his poems were being published by The Jindyworobaks and attracting positive reviews.Enrolling for Arts and Economics at Adelaide University, he chummed up with a bookish girl called Mary Martin, pictured left, and they swiftly became figures of interest, Max forever walking around reading, being guided by his book-carrying friend, Mary. This platonic relationship was to last their lives. Max, however, had fallen in love with a young ballet dancer called Yvonne Hutton when they were both still at school, she at St Peters Girls College. Her rather elegant and proper parents did not approve of this relationship.
Harris was possessed of stupendous energy and a wellspring of enthusiasm. He was handsome, raven-haired with velvet brown eyes and a good voice. He also was charismatic, erudite and extremely witty - a combination which was to attract envy throughout his life.
His literary output was prolific. His The Gift of Blood collection of poems was published by The Jindyworobaks in 1940. His early and later verse was lyric. But surrealism became the style which was to generate all the controversy of the day. His The Pelvic Rose, published in the first Angry Penguins, stirred the pot already bubbling from an article he had written called I am an Anarchist - So What? There was no funding for publishing so Harris's mother became the secret sponsor for his ventures - helping to finance the first three issues of Angry Penguins and a bound edition of his early writings..
The War was on and Harris went into service as a Corporal. He was not a very successful conformist at Military Camp and found himself digging a lot of latrines which he always remembered rather fondly - for it was within these excavations, out of sight of authority, that he sat and read the works of Proust. After three months he was released to be put on special research work - and doing occasional stints on watch for enemy aircraft from the top of a city department store. Harris was producing Angry Penguins. He was core to the founding of the Contemporary Art Society. He was provocative and political and prominent. And the lawyer John Reed came to Adelaide to seek him out - and the link with John and Sunday Reed, Heide and the artists was formed.
Harris was invited to Melbourne and he accepted, taking Angry Penguins and producing it from Melbourne with John Reed. They formed the publishing company Reed & Harris from which Harris was paid the princely sum of six pounds a week for his work as an editor, writer and publisher.
Max became an inner-sanctum member of the Heide group with Sun, John and Sidney Nolan. Nolan had returned from service AWOL under the pseudonym of Robin. Max spent a lot of time at Heide, sleeping in the sleepout except on Von's visits when they were given a room to share.
Von, who was furthering her ballet training at the Borovansky School, swiftly fell under Sunday's stylish spell, sharing many of the health cuisine interests and skills while Sun was captivated by young Von's beauty and energy. An enduring friendship was established. Max shared intellectual ties with John and Sid and a great affection for Sunday whose nurturing took the form of allocating a special "Max Table" for writing - a she guarded vigilantly, allowing no one but Max to use it.
Heide was not a commune, as seems to have become the myth. It was a gathering place wherein artists, particularly, were nurtured and encouraged. There was Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, John Perceval, Arthur Boyd as well as Nolan. The Reeds helped artists financially as well as spiritually. Much painting was done at Heide and there was an almost ferocious vitality in the exchanges of thoughts and ideas. Art and philosophy were argued. Books were devoured and discussed even more avidly than the exquisite vegetarian meals. Harris was in his element and was ever the catalyst and often the inspiration. It was he, for instance, who sparked Sid Nolan with the idea for the Ned Kelly series. Nolan had produced an image of a Kelly-like masked figure which Harris analysed as the self-portrait of the artist in hiding from the army.
The comparison with Kelly was drawn and, inspired and excited, the two friends set off on an expedition through the Kelly country Nolan's place in Heide was more deeply entrenched than that of the others. He had been married and had a baby daughter called Amelda. But he moved in to be with Sunday and an extended relationship took place, stoically tolerated by John Reed - the famous "maison a trois". But, ironically, it was Reed's sister, Cynthia, with whom Nolan finally ran away. By then the Reeds were raising Sweeney, son of Joy Hester and Bert Tucker. But that's another story.
The intellectual hothouse atmosphere spread to the Reed & Harris offices - and wherever Max went. It was in this orbit in 1944 that the Ern Malley hoax took place.
As if the hoax was not bad enough, the police leapt into the controversy and Max was charged with published obscene poetry. The deadly hand of the Establishment getting its own back on the left-wing modernists.
Harris returned to Adelaide to face the charges. It was sensational court case. Max was savaged by the media. People spat at him in the street. Von's family's disapproval of Max reached new depths. Her father long since had rejected Max's request for her hand in marriage. Nonetheless, the couple had married and produced a daughter, naming her Samela after an Elizabethan poem by Robert Greene.
Max decided to remain in Adelaide with his little family and joined his old friend Mary Martin in a bookshop business. Mary Martin's Bookshop began as a small arty bookshop in Alma Chambers, Exchange Place, Adelaide. It became a gathering place for the cognoscenti. But Max showed a flair for business and soon the little shop needed to expand. It moved into Rundle Street in the centre of the city and, over the ensuing years, into yet larger premises in Da Costa Building, importing all manner of new exotica which Max and Von would discover on annual travels.
When Mary Martin moved to India, a country which long had drawn her, Max retained her name and bought her share of the business. The shop expanded to the other states, to New Zealand and even Hong Kong before it was taken over by Macmillans. Max's touch had been its magic - and when he retired from the business, it never shone again. Max's very genuine interest in people and his uncanny ability to steer them to the reading which suited, enlightened and delighted them was key to the success of the shop. Also his encyclopaedic knowledge of books. He knew all the books in print and out of print.
Many were the battles he undertook - fighting Australian censorship laws relentlessly until victory and defying the British stranglehold on books to make them cheaper for Australians. He initiated an Australian publishing house producing Sun Books and he became publishing advisor to British publishers, ensuring that their publication runs would produce remainders enough to supply the Australian market with high quality discount books.
By this time, the lean angry young man had become the elegant old Angry Penguin - slightly portly, always well-attired and carrying what had become a trademark silvertopped cane.
The Ern Malley Affair, however, had damaged his own literary output and he wrote fewer poems. Instead, he had taken to journalism and was a founder columnist in the Murdoch national daily, The Australian. His Browsing column ran for decades, making him one of the longest running columnists in the country. For some years he also wrote for the Adelaide Sunday paper, The Sunday Mail, a populist column which earned an enthusiastic following and gave him a new interaction with the proletariat, for whom he had an abiding affection.
He also avowed himself a feminist and made a lengthy study of the biographies of women.
An interesting link with his youth in the lovely South East of South Australia was his devotion to the work of Mother Mary MacKillop, a feminist educationalist nun who founded the Order of the Josephites. Harris was not a religious man, although he was a spiritual man. However, the struggle of this brave pioneer teacher who set up her first school in Penola, stirred him to many writings, recommending her as “a Saint for all Australians”. He became acknowledged by the Catholic Church as the lay person who had done the most to promote the works of the woman for it they craved beatification.
Max Harris published several smaller books of lyric verse over the years - The Coorong and Other Poems, A Window at Night, Poetic Gems... He also wrote The Australian Way with Words, The Land That Waited, Ockers, Unknown Great Australians and The Best of Max Harris. He continued always to encourage new writers and artists, never losing his connection with the art world. And although he travelled extensively, he kept Adelaide as a base.
When he died of prostate cancer in 1995, he was acknowledged as one of the greatest lyric poets Australia had produced. He was also honored by the University's Alumni as “the father of modernism in the Australian arts”.